Marc Lamont Hill delivers a keynote speech at Newark's 29th annual Sing in Praise of King hosted in the Sarah Vaughan Concert Hall (Credit: FlisadamP Photography / Flickr)

Tensions rise at Temple after professor’s controversial comments

By and December 5, 2018

This week, FIRE and others have warned Temple University that it cannot punish professor Marc Lamont Hill over his controversial comments on Israel. As a public university, Temple is forbidden by the First Amendment from punishing Hill for his protected expression. Nevertheless, calls for his termination continue.

Hill, who teaches media and communication, sparked controversy last week over comments he made at the United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. In his speech, he called for “political action … that will give us what justice requires and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” Critics said Hill’s use of phrase “from the river to the sea,” was a threat against Israel.

Temple President Richard Englert initially affirmed that “Professor Hill’s right to express his opinion is protected by the Constitution to the same extent as any other private citizen.” But a report from Temple’s student newspaper suggests an investigation is already underway.

The Temple Times also reports that the university has refused its multiple requests for comment. On Monday, FIRE called on Englert to confirm that the university will not investigate or punish Hill’s speech. FIRE has asked Temple to respond to our letter by Friday. But given the continuing calls for his termination, Temple would do well to clearly and publicly disclaim the possibility of punishing him immediately.

As of this afternoon, a group of Temple professors has signed an open letter supporting Hill’s right to free speech. The Temple Association of University Professors has also defended Hill, citing academic freedom.

Yet, Temple has remained under intense pressure to punish Hill, including from one of its own trustees.

Board of Trustees Chairman Patrick O’Connor, a prominent Philadelphia-area attorney, told local media that he and the board were “not happy” about Hill’s comments, and that “people wanted to fire [Hill] right away.” O’Connor also warned that Temple’s legal team was “going to look at what remedies we have.”

“Free speech is one thing. Hate speech is entirely different,” O’Connor told Philly.com.

That assertion is, of course, contrary to the First Amendment. But explain that to O’Connor’s law firm partner, who on Wednesday weighed in on the controversy. In a letter to the editor published in The Legal Intelligencer, Stephen Cozen defended O’Connor’s call to punish Hill and criticized the TAUP for “stand[ing] behind the false rubric of academic freedom.” Because he believes academic freedom protections do not apply, Cozen reasons that the “issue then is free speech and as we all know free speech has its limitations. . . [h]ate speech is one of them.”

No, it isn’t.

Cozen went on to opine that “the delegitimization of the state of Israel is the equivalent of anti-Semitism and is a form of hate speech.” Cozen also explained that his partner “clearly said” that “Hill’s speech was disgusting and that he would need to look at what options Temple University had.” But that’s contrary to Philly.com’s report that “O’Connor said he had instructed Temple’s legal staff to explore its options in response to Hill’s remarks.”

So which is it? Is O’Connor is evaluating the speech for his own edification, or has he directed the university to launch an investigation?

Meanwhile, a former Philadelphia-area congressional candidate is calling on Temple to “act” in response to a pro-Hill rally organized by Temple University Students for Justice in Palestine because it uses language used by Hill — which, again, is protected speech.

FIRE is not the only organization asking Temple not to bow to public pressure to punish Hill’s protected speech. In a statement, writer advocacy group PEN America said punishing Hill would “undermine academic freedom.” Defending Rights & Dissent, a political expression advocacy group, also sent a letter to Temple.

“As a civil liberties group we call on you uphold Hill’s First Amendment rights,” wrote Defending Rights & Dissent. “Firing, discipling, or taking other punitive measures against Hill for his political expression is absolutely unacceptable.”

FIRE agrees, and we continue to monitor the situation. We again ask Temple to abide by its First Amendment obligations and make clear that it will not investigate or punish Hill’s protected expression.

Schools: Temple University Cases: Temple University: Professor Facing Investigation for Pro-Palestinian Speech